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The notion that alcohol consumption usually results in negative consequences has been ingrained in our collective consciousness from time immemorial. The reality of these negatives results may vary, from long term medical problems such as, strokes and liver disease, to short term or more immediate social problems like deviant behaviour and, most significantly, crime. The latter consequence is what this research is primarily concerned with.
Over the years, the significance and recurrence of the 'alcohol factor' in incidents of crime has become globally recognised. Alcohol-related crime may broadly be divided into two categories. The first category are offences which are directly alcohol related such as, driving under the influence (DUI), disorderly conduct due to drunkenness and some specific violations of alcohol legislation such as sale to minors (these offences are viewed as minor offences or misdemeanours under UK law). The second category is made up of crimes where the consumption of alcohol by the offender is believed to have a significant, if not causal, influence over the offender's actions. Thus, the offender is deemed to be, 'under the influence'. This category may include offences ranging from assault to criminal damage (IAS, 2009). Alcohol has also been identified as the most common factor in a high percentage of violent personal assault crimes such as muggings, rapes and murder, and, people who consume alcohol are more likely to exhibit violent behaviour (Felson, 2007). From as far back as the early 1900's, there have been numerous studies, by as many researchers, which have sought to investigate and examine the relationship between alcohol and crime in an attempt to determine the connection, if any, between these two variables. The structures of these studies have equally varied, both in hypothesis and methodology, which has inevitably led to major differences in outcome and opinion among researchers.
A vast majority of people, when initially questioned, conclude that a link between alcohol and crime exists, and is in fact, self-evident. This is most commonly illustrated when any sort of negative social behaviour is exhibited after alcohol has been consumed. Such action is immediately attributed to the consumption of alcohol, as the offender would most likely be described as acting under the influence of alcohol. A similar way of thinking is also followed when a crime is committed by a person who has consumed alcohol (Collins, 1981). Light (1994) further added that these assumptions of a 'sure' link between alcohol and crime are readily created and accepted because they seem logical and give quick answers.
In trying to ascertain the link between these variables, one popular method that has been employed by researchers is the comparison of official crime statistics with alcohol consumption rates (Pernanem, 1981: Field, 1990). The outcome of this method of research shows a strong connection between the increase in alcohol consumption and an appreciation in recorded criminal offences relating to violence. Inversely, a study in areas with reduced alcohol supply showed a lower level of social interaction, thereby resulting in a lower risk of interpersonal crime e.g. assault. This leads to the theory that control of social interaction, through the manipulation of alcohol availability, would invariably lead to a drop in crime rates. According to Fagan and Wilkinson (1998), the consumption of alcohol leads to illusions of strength and toughness which may translate to an increased risk of violence and inevitably, crime. This is the same line of thinking utilised by Graham and Holman (2008) when they posited that alcohol consumption has a high probability of being a factor in impromptu or spontaneous violence as is frequently seen in pubs or clubs. There is little doubt that reports of this nature would have, in no small measure, informed government initiatives towards crime reduction via alcohol regulations.
According to a report by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, about 70% of crime audits published in 1998 and 1999 identified alcohol as a recurring factor (IAS, 2007). In 2004, the UK Labour Government introduced new measures to deal with alcohol related crime which resulted in the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy 2004. The Home Office, in anticipation of the government's efforts, came up with an action plan to tackle alcohol related crime with its key objective being to reduce public drunkenness and prevent alcohol related violence. The Licensing Act of 2003 was introduced in November 2005 and one of its main objectives was the prevention of crime and disorder. The Act, which put an end to set licensing hours in England and Wales, was designed to give some flexibility to the otherwise strict system already in place which presented a two pronged problem. The first was heavy drinking caused by prescribed closing times across the nation which resulted in many people drinking as much as they could, while they could (in most cases leading to drunkenness) and the second was to problem of a large number of people, who had been consuming alcohol, being simultaneously 'ejected' onto the streets all over the country.
A study that was carried out shortly after the Act was implemented, surveyed 30 police forces including a case study of 5 cities, and showed very subtle changes in crime rate, thereby suggesting that the legislation had little or no impact on crime (Hough et al 2008). This may have been because the law was relatively new during the period under review, and proper implementation measures had not been fine tuned. A significant reduction in the crime rate following the implementation of the Act would have served as further indication of a direct relationship between alcohol consumption and crime due to the predominance of the alcohol factor in crime generally.
The foregoing paragraph gives reason to introduce caution in attempting to determine the link between alcohol consumption and crime, as just because a high percentage of offenders had consumed alcohol before committing a crime, does not mean it can be firmly concluded that alcohol is directly related to crime. Despite the 'positive statistical' connections that exist, a direct causal link between alcohol and crime has been ruled out, since the consumption of alcohol alone is not sufficient to cause a crime. The association between the variables relies heavily on a third variable; usually a set of social circumstances or independent activities of those who drink, in order for it to be translated to crime (Field, 1990). The presence of alcohol in the commission of a crime may at best be explained as a 'contributory factor' or a 'determinant' to the crime and should not be asserted as the cause. This is prudent as the evidence suggesting otherwise, is usually of a contradictory nature and not very persuasive (Collins, 1981). In support of this position, Dingwall (2006) submits that the contemplation of a purported 'link' is far more complicated than it seems, as these conclusions are mostly based on hypotheses that cannot be proven by evidence. He argues further, that while there is no scarcity of research on this subject, the available material is laden with faulty methodology and is further restricted in scope. Greenberg (1981) laid emphasis on the vague and sometimes inadequate definitions of alcohol and crime and also asserted that the precise nature of the relationship to be tested between both variables was not specified.
In further criticism of existing research that claims a certain link, Roizen (1997) pointed out that most of the available research, collated and utilised empirical data using the 'event-based' methodology i.e. statistical surveys of perpetrators or victims of crimes in which alcohol had been ingested prior to the act. The critical flaw in these methods is the absence of a comparison group against which normally expected behaviour as against alcohol related or induced behaviour can be tested. Surely the results of such comparison would go a long way is further defining the actual correlation between alcohol and crime. However, the challenge with finding such an appropriate group lies with the practical impossibility of measuring or replicating intentional behaviour. This recognised flaw in previous methodology also led to another angle which involved testing the correlation between alcohol and violence. The reasoning behind this was that research had constantly shown that the consumption of alcohol is associated with increased levels of aggression and was also present in a very significant percentage of violent events, almost all of which, led to crime (Pernanem, 1991). It thus, became noteworthy to critically examine the relationship between alcohol and aggressive or violent behaviour (Benton and Holloway, 2005). Phillips et al (2007) sought to use this reasoning to cure the defect in earlier research by employing a 'match-pair' research design which they claimed made it possible to achieve an appropriate comparison group.
Despite the numerous disagreements on whether alcohol can rightly be termed a causal factor, or if it simply remains a contributory factor, the fact remains that there is an established statistical relationship between alcohol and crime which is too significant to be ignored or termed coincidental. Both sides of the issue have been very keenly debated and researched, making it even more difficult to adopt a position, and without a clear definition of the parameters within which these variables are measured, it becomes even arguable that alcohol can actually prevent crime, as a would-be offender may become too inebriated to commit any crime that he otherwise may have.